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Poem by Robert Lee Frost
I met a lady from the South who said (You won’t believe she said it, but she said it): ”None of my family ever worked, or had A thing to sell.” I don’t suppose the work Much matters. You may work for all of me. I’ve seen the time I’ve had to work myself. The having anything to sell is what Is the disgrace in man or state or nation. I met a traveler from Arkansas Who boasted of his state as beautiful For diamonds and apples. ”Diamonds And apples in commercial quantities?” I asked him, on my guard. ”Oh, yes,” he answered, Off his. The time was evening in the Pullman. I see the porter’s made your bed,” I told him. I met a Californian who would Talk California—a state so blessed, He said, in climate, none bad ever died there A natural death, and Vigilance Committees Had had to organize to stock the graveyards And vindicate the state’s humanity. ”Just the way Stefansson runs on,” I murmured, ”About the British Arctic. That’s what comes Of being in the market with a climate.” I met a poet from another state, A zealot full of fluid inspiration, Who in the name of fluid inspiration, But in the best style of bad salesmanship, Angrily tried to male me write a protest (In verse I think) against the Volstead Act. He didn’t even offer me a drink Until I asked for one to steady him. This is called having an idea to sell. It never could have happened in New Hampshire. The only person really soiled with trade I ever stumbled on in old New Hampshire Was someone who had just come back ashamed From selling things in California. He’d built a noble mansard roof with balls On turrets, like Constantinople, deep In woods some ten miles from a railroad station, As if to put forever out of mind The hope of being, as we say, received. I found him standing at the close of day Inside the threshold of his open barn, Like a lone actor on a gloomy stage— And recognized him, through the iron gray In which his face was muffled to the eyes, As an old boyhood friend, and once indeed A drover with me on the road to Brighton. His farm was ”grounds,” and not a farm at all; His house among the local sheds and shanties Rose like a factor’s at a trading station. And be was rich, and I was still a rascal. I couldn’t keep from asking impolitely, Where bad he been and what had he been doing? How did he get so? (Rich was understood.) In dealing in ”old rags” in San Francisco. Ob, it was terrible as well could be. We both of us turned over in our graves. Just specimens is all New Hampshire has, One each of everything as in a showcase, Which naturally she doesn’t care to sell. She had one President. (Pronounce him Purse, And make the most of it for better or worse. He’s your one chance to score against the state.) She had one Daniel Webster. He was all The Daniel Webster ever was or shall be. She had the Dartmouth’ needed to produce him. I call her old. She has one family Whose claim is good to being settled here Before the era of colonization, And before that of exploration even. John Smith remarked them as be coasted by, Dangling their legs and fishing off a wharf At the Isles of Shoals, and satisfied himself They weren’t Red Indians but veritable Pre-primitives of the white race, dawn people, Like those who furnished Adam’s sons with wives; However uninnocent they may have been In being there so early in our history. They’d been there then a hundred years or more. Pity he didn’t ask what they were up to At that date with a wharf already built, And take their name. They’ve since told me their name— Today an honored one in Nottingham. As for what they were up to more than fishing— Suppose they weren’t behaving Puritanly, The hour bad not yet struck for being good, Mankind had not yet gone on the Sabbatical. It became an explorer of the deep Not to explore too deep in others’ business. Did you but know of him, New Hampshire has One real reformer who would change the world So it would be accepted by two classes, Artists the minute they set up as artists, Before, that is, they are themselves accepted, And boys the minute they get out of college. I can’t help thinking those are tests to go by. And she has one I don’t know what to call him, Who comes from Philadelphia every year With a great flock of chickens of rare breeds He wants to give the educational Advantages of growing almost wild Under the watchful eye of hawk and eagle Dorkings because they’re spoken of by Chaucer, Sussex because they’re spoken of by Herrick. She has a touch of gold. New Hampshire gold— You may have heard of it. I had a farm Offered me not long since up Berlin way With a mine on it that was worked for gold; But not gold in commercial quantities, Just enough gold to make the engagement rings And marriage rings of those who owned the farm. What gold more innocent could one have asked for? One of my children ranging after rocks Lately brought home from Andover or Canaan A specimen of beryl with a trace Of radium. I know with radium The trace would have to be the merest trace To be below the threshold of commercial; But trust New Hampshire not to have enough Of radium or anything to sell. A specimen of everything, I said. She has one witch—old style. She lives in Colebrook. (The only other witch I ever met Was lately at a cut-glass dinner in Boston. There were four candles and four people present. The witch was young, and beautiful (new style), And open-minded. She was free to question Her gift for reading letters locked in boxes. Why was it so much greater when the boxes Were metal than it was when they were wooden? It made the world seem so mysterious. The S’ciety for Psychical Research Was cognizant. Her husband was worth millions. I think he owned some shares in Harvard College.) New Hampshire used to have at Salem A company we called the White Corpuscles, Whose duty was at any hour of night To rush in sheets and fool’s caps where they smelled A thing the least bit doubtfully perscented And give someone the Skipper Ireson’s Ride. One each of everything as in a showcase. More than enough land for a specimen You’ll say she has, but there there enters in Something else to protect her from herself. There quality makes up for quantity. Not even New Hampshire farms are much for sale. The farm I made my home on in the mountains 1 had to take by force rather than buy. I caught the owner outdoors by himself Raking.up after winter, and I said, “I’m going to put you off this farm: I want it.” “Where are you going to put me? In the road?” “I’m going to put you on the farm next to it.” “Why won’t the farm next to it do for you?” ”I like this better.” It was really better. Apples? New Hampshire has them, but unsprayed, With no suspicion in stern end or blossom end Of vitriol or arsenate of lead, And so not good for anything but cider. Her unpruned grapes are flung like lariats Far up the birches out of reach of man. A state producing precious metals, stones, And—writing; none of these except perhaps The precious literature in quantity Or quality to worry the producer About disposing of it. Do you know, Considering the market, there are more Poems produced than any other thing? No wonder poets sometimes have to seem So much more businesslike than businessmen. Their wares are so much harder to get rid of. She’s one of the two best states in the Union. Vermont’s the other. And the two have been Yokefellows in the sap yoke from of old In many Marches. And they lie like wedges, Thick end to thin end and thin end to thick end, And are a figure of the way the strong Of mind and strong of arm should fit together, One thick where one is thin and vice versa. New Hampshire raises the Connecticut In a trout hatchery near Canada, But soon divides the river with Vermont. Both are delightful states for their absurdly Small towns—Lost Nation, Bungey, Muddy Boo, Poplin, Still Corners (so called not because The place is silent all day long, nor yet Because it boasts a whisky still—because It set out once to be a city and still Is only corners, crossroads in a wood). And I remember one whose name appeared Between the pictures on a movie screen Election night once in Franconia, When everything had gone Republican And Democrats were sore in need of comfort: Easton goes Democratic, Wilson 4 Hughes 2. And everybody to the saddest Laughed the loud laugh the big laugh at the little. New York (five million) laughs at Manchester, Manchester (sixty or seventy thousand) laughs At Littleton (four thousand), Littleton Laughs at Franconia (seven hundred), and Franconia laughs, I fear—-did laugh that night-- At Easton. What has Easton left to laugh at, And like the actress exclaim ”Oh, my God” at? There’s Bungey; and for Bungey there are towns, Whole townships named but without population. Anything I can say about New Hampshire Will serve almost as well about Vermont, Excepting that they differ in their mountains. The Vermont mountains stretch extended straight; New Hampshire mountains Curl up in a coil. I had been coming to New Hampshire mountains. And here I am and what am I to say? Here first my theme becomes embarrassing. Emerson said, ”The God who made New Hampshire Taunted the lofty land with little men.” Anotner Massachusetts poet said, ”I go no more to summer in New Hampshire. I’ve given up my summer place in Dublin.” But when I asked to know what ailed New Hampshire, She said she couldn’t stand the people in it, The little men (it’s Massachusetts speaking). And when I asked to know what ailed the people, She said, ”Go read your own books and find out.” I may as well confess myself the author Of several books against the world in general. To take them as against a special state Or even nation’s to restrict my meaning. I’m what is called a sensibilitist, Or otherwise an environmentalist. I refuse to adapt myself a mite To any change from hot to cold, from wet To dry, from poor to rich, or back again. I make a virtue of my suffering From nearly everything that goes on round me. In other words, I know wherever I am, Being the creature of literature I am, 1 sball not lack for pain to keep me awake. Kit Marlowe taught me how to say my prayers: ”Why, this is Hell, nor am I out of it.” Samoa, Russia, Ireland I complain of, No less than England, France, and Italy. Because I wrote my novels in New Hampshire Is no proof that I aimed them at New Hampshire. When I left Massachusetts years ago Between two days, the reason why I sought New Hampshire, not Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, or Vermont was this: Where I was living then, New Hampshire offered The nearest boundary to escape across. I hadn’t an illusion in my handbag About the people being better there Than those I left behind. I thought they weren’t. I thought they couldn’t be. And yet they were. I’d sure had no such friends in Massachusetts As Hall of Windham, Gay of Atkinson, Bartlett of Raymond (now of Colorado), Harris of Derry, and Lynch of Bethlehem. The glorious bards of Massachusetts seem To want to make New Hampshire people over. They taunt the lofty land with little men. I don’t know what to say about the people. For art’s sake one could almost wish them worse Rather than better. How are we to write The Russian novel in America As long as life goes so unterribly? There is the pinch from which our only outcry In literature to date is heard to come. We get what little misery we can Out of not having cause for misery. It makes the guild of novel writers sick To be expected to be Dostoievskis On nothing worse than too much luck and comfort. This is not sorrow, though; it’s just the vapors, And recognized as such in Russia itself Under the new regime, and so forbidden. If well it is with Russia, then feel free To say so or be stood against the wall And shot. It’s Pollyanna now or death. This, then, is the new freedom we hear tell of; And very sensible. No state can build A literature that shall at once be sound And sad on a foundation of well-being. To show the level of intelligence Among us: it was just a Warren farmer Whose horse had pulled him short up in the road By me, a stranger. This is what he said, From nothing but embarrassment and want Of anything more sociable to say: ”You hear those bound dogs sing on Moosilauke? Well, they remind me of the hue and cry We’ve heard against the Mid - Victorians And never rightly understood till Bryan Retired from politics and joined the chorus. The matter with the Mid-Victorians Seems to have been a man named Joh n L. Darwin.” ”Go ’long,” I said to him, he to his horse. I knew a man who failing as a farmer Burned down his farmhouse for the fire insurance, And spent the proceeds on a telescope To satisfy a lifelong curiosity About our place among the infinities. And how was that for otherworldliness? If I must choose which I would elevate — The people or the already lofty mountains I’d elevate the already lofty mountains The only fault I find with old New Hampshire Is that her mountains aren’t quite high enough. I was not always so; I’ve come to be so. How, to my sorrow, how have I attained A height from which to look down critical On mountains? What has given me assurance To say what height becomes New Hampshire mountains, Or any mountains? Can it be some strength I feel, as of an earthquake in my back, To heave them higher to the morning star? Can it be foreign travel in the Alps? Or having seen and credited a moment The solid molding of vast peaks of cloud Behind the pitiful reality Of Lincoln, Lafayette, and Liberty? Or some such sense as says bow high shall jet The fountain in proportion to the basin? No, none of these has raised me to my throne Of intellectual dissatisfaction, But the sad accident of having seen Our actual mountains given in a map Of early times as twice the height they are— Ten thousand feet instead of only five— Which shows how sad an accident may be. Five thousand is no longer high enough. Whereas I never had a good idea About improving people in the world, Here I am overfertile in suggestion, And cannot rest from planning day or night How high I’d thrust the peaks in summer snow To tap the upper sky and draw a flow Of frosty night air on the vale below Down from the stars to freeze the dew as starry. The more the sensibilitist I am The more I seem to want my mountains wild; The way the wiry gang-boss liked the logjam. After he’d picked the lock and got it started, He dodged a log that lifted like an arm Against the sky to break his back for him, Then came in dancing, skipping with his life Across the roar and chaos, and the words We saw him say along the zigzag journey Were doubtless as the words we heard him say On coming nearer: ”Wasn’t she an i-deal Son-of-a-bitch? You bet she was an i-deal.” For all her mountains fall a little short, Her people not quite short enough for Art, She’s still New Hampshire; a most restful state. Lately in converse with a New York alec About the new school of the pseudo-phallic, I found myself in a close corner where I bad to make an almost funny choice. ”Choose you which you will be—a prude, or puke, Mewling and puking in the public arms.” ”Me for the hills where I don’t have to choose.” ”But if you bad to choose, which would you be?” 1 wouldn’t be a prude afraid of nature. I know a man who took a double ax And went alone against a grove of trees; But his heart failing him, he dropped the ax And ran for shelter quoting Matthew Arnold: ”’Nature is cruel, man is sick of blood’: There s been enough shed without shedding mine. Remember Birnam Wood! The wood’s in flux!” He had a special terror of the flux That showed itself in dendrophobia. The only decent tree had been to mill And educated into boards, be said. He knew too well for any earthly use The line where man leaves off and nature starts. And never overstepped it save in dreams. He stood on the safe side of the line talking— Which is sheer Matthew Arnoldism, The cult of one who owned himself ”a foiled Circuitous wanderer,” and ”took dejectedly His seat upon the intellectual throne”— Agreed in ’frowning on these improvised Altars the woods are full of nowadays, Again as in the days when Ahaz sinned By worship under green trees in the open. Scarcely a mile but that I come on one, A black-checked stone and stick of rain-washed charcoal. Even to say the groves were God’s first temples Comes too near to Ahaz’ sin for safety. Nothing not built with hands of course is sacred. But here is not a question of what’s sacred; Rather of what to face or run away from. I’d hate to be a runaway from nature. And neither would I choose to be a puke Who cares not what be does in company, And when he can’t do anything, falls back On words, and tries his worst to make words speak Louder than actions, and sometimes achieves it. It seems a narrow choice the age insists on 8ow about being a good Greek, for instance) That course, they tell me, isn’t offered this year. ”Come, but this isn’t choosing—puke or prude?” Well, if I have to choose one or the other, I choose to be a plain New Hampshire farmer With an income in cash of, say, a thousand (From, say, a publisher in New York City). It’s restful to arrive at a decision, And restful just to think about New Hampshire. At present I am living in Vermont.
Robert Lee Frost
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